The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘tradition’

The Ants of God

January 21, 2015 | by

The budding South Sudanese community in Omaha, Nebraska.

nuer still

A still from The Nuer, a 1971 documentary.

More than a hundred years ago, my relatives emigrated from Czechoslovakia to Nebraska, thus escaping the privilege of becoming fodder for the aristocracy’s canons. Why Nebraska? The railroad advertising pictured illustrations of the thick loam of the prairie, calculated to resemble their homeland’s. The land was theirs for free if they worked extremely hard on it for five years, and many did, and prospered.

This century, the Nuer from South Sudan have immigrated to the same region, but they aren’t so fortunate. Having escaped one of the world’s worst war zones, endured extremely harsh conditions in refugee camps, and traveled eight thousand miles to resettle, the Nuer face poor Nebraska neighborhoods policed by gangs like the Bloods and the Crips.

The Nuer fled fighting in a very remote area in South Sudan, much of it accessible only by boat or on foot. I know. I walked into the region thirty-five years ago, lugging in heavy sound equipment to make a sequel to The Nuer, the highest grossing ethnographic film of the time. The original, from 1971, was extremely beautiful, shot by Hilary Harris, Robert Gardner, and George Breidenbach. It documented the traditional Nuer lifestyle as depicted by E. E. Evans-Pritchard, the British academic who founded the discipline of social anthropology on a study of their culture. The sequel to it was never finished, but I translated and published Cleaned the Crocodile’s Teeth, a selection of their songs, their most complex art form.

Never would I have imagined that people from so far away would move within a hundred miles of my birthplace in Ogallala, Nebraska. So many resettled in the state that it now has the world’s largest population of Nuer outside South Sudan. Had I impressed them with talk of a landscape similar to their own, the way the broadsides had lured my relatives? It couldn’t be—all I’d had to do was mention snow to the Africans and their enthusiasm waned. Originally, resettlement agencies sent the Nuer to rural Minnesota, Virginia, Arizona, California, and upstate New York. They had to establish themselves quickly: all our government gave them was a loan for the plane ticket from Africa, less than three hundred dollars cash, and food stamps. They had to start paying back the loans within six months—a tall order when you’re traumatized by war, not yet fluent in English, and largely unaware of American customs. Through informal cell phone networking, the Nuer converged on Nebraska. Cheap housing attracted them—and openings in the meatpacking industry, that mainstay of immigrant labor. In many Nuer families, both spouses work two shifts. The slaughterhouse was a psychologically difficult workplace, as they had just fled a war that had more civilian casualties than World War II. The slaughterhouse worker I spoke to was bothered by the screams of the half-dead cattle while their hides were ripped off with hooks. You are supposed to wait until the eyes tell you what to do, he said. Read More »


Sleep of the Just

November 24, 2014 | by


Illustration by Randolph Caldecott.

You know how J. M. W. Turner tried to exhibit his work at the Royal Academy and the Royal Academy was all, Wow, your work is way too innovative and interesting and we can’t show it because it would threaten all our hidebound, bourgeois ideas and force us to reevaluate everything and make important societal changes? Yeah, well, I totally see their point. Once a year, anyway.

Because every November, all the food magazines and blogs start trying to bully us into to reinventing the wheel. Don’t be a fogey! they scream. What, you’re still eating turkey? HAHAHA. Well, if you insist on being a “traditionalist,” stuff that turkey with linguica and kale! Baste it with ramen! Douse it in pomegranate molasses! (All this is said in a vaguely threatening, SportsCenter-style cadence.) This isn’t your mom’s green bean casserole! You’re not even seeing those losers, are you, with their stupid political views and opinions about your love life? Surely you’re having some awesome no-strings Friendsgiving celebrating the new family you’ve chosen! Right? RIGHT?! SRIRACHA. SRIRACHA. SRIRACHA. 

Look. I get the market demands of the newsstand. You can’t just recycle the same stuff year after year. Nor do I mean to advocate a slavish adherence to tradition. In my family’s case, that would mean cleaning the dining room table off in a panic at the last minute, barring entrance to the rooms where we’ve stuck all the mess, then watching my mother stand in front of the digital meat thermometer with tears rolling down her cheeks.  Read More »

How to Win the Nobel Prize

October 9, 2014 | by

A close reading of the Swedish Academy’s citations.


Reading the news about Patrick Modiano today, I was struck by the insipidness of the Nobel Foundation’s citation: “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.” It bears all the hallmarks of an overblown blurb, one of those in which a bold, gimlet-eyed novelist is elucidating the now, or a limpid, singular poet is saying the unsayable. (Very few poets are saying the sayable these days, if our blurbs are to be believed.)

Let’s unpack this citation, beginning with this business about “the art of memory,” which doesn’t seem like much of an art to me. (To conceive of it as such invites a corny geriatric punch line: “Just wait till you start forgetting so much!”) Granting that it is art, is it really the art through which Modiano “evokes”? That would have to be his writing. If he’d simply sat at his desk lost in memories, he wouldn’t evoke much more than his own sighs. For that matter—can one really “evoke” a destiny, and, having been evoked, is that destiny still “ungraspable,” let alone the most ungraspable? Who’s to say that one destiny can be grasped more easily than another? (“He was destined to be a pediatric podiatrist—he saw it plain as day.”) Then there’s this murky concept of the “life-world,” which sounds like something out of Heidegger—wouldn’t one word or the other have sufficed? To speak of a life-world implies its negative, the death-world, which, despite our best efforts, has never been uncovered.

Drafting these citations must be painstaking, fairly joyless work. This one, at least, reads like an act of circumlocution by committee; the choice to append “the most” to “ungraspable” may have occasioned hours of debate. And for what? The final result could apply to anyone; in the broadest terms, not just every writer but every person in history has practiced the art of memory, evoking destinies and uncovering life-worlds. Read More »


Comfort Food

June 30, 2014 | by


Sally Bell’s started making box lunch in the 1950s, but the recipes used to make the salad, sandwich spread, deviled egg, cheese wafer, and cupcake that go into the box date back to the 1920s, when Sarah Cabell Jones opened her bakery in a building across the street. There is nothing singly spectacular about the immemorial meal you get here, except for its immunity to anything modern. Sally Bell serves the exact lunch it served a half-century ago, which is probably much the same as polite Virginians ate a hundred years ago. There are two salads from which to choose: macaroni, which is fine, and spicy-sweet potato salad laced with onions, which is memorable. Of the eleven kinds of sandwiches, we seldom can resist pimiento cheese, but we have not regretted chicken salad (on a roll rather than white bread), cream cheese and olive (talk about a bygone taste!), and thin-cut Smithfield ham. As for cupcakes, there’s no beating the orange-and-lemon, its icing sprinkled with little bits of citrus confetti. All the elements are neatly packaged in a cardboard lunchbox lined with wax paper.
—Jane and Michael Stern, Roadfood

Sally Bell’s Kitchen is hardly a secret. It is a Richmond institution, beloved by generations of Fan District denizens, and the subject of a lengthy profile, in 2000, in the New York Times. Saveur calls its box lunch “paradise in a box.” Its demure, upside-down cupcakes, twenties-vintage Colonial Dame logo, deviled eggs, and old-fashioned, pecan-crowned cheese wafers—described by the Sterns as “heartbreaking”—speak to a sort of timeless gentility most of us can only imagine.

Certainly I can. I have no ties to Richmond, no institutional memory of the place. The three times I’ve tried to visit Sally Bell’s, I’ve fallen victim to the bakery’s conservative hours. And yet my obsession with the place is so well known that friends have more than once taken the time to wait on line and rush me a box lunch up to New York. People have given me aprons emblazoned with the cameo logo and a picture book filled with mouthwatering images of deviled eggs and beaten biscuits. On occasion I have been known to print out a copy of their menu and quixotically check off the options that appeal to me: potato salad, ham roll, lemon cupcake. For a while I had this pinned over my desk at work. I imagine people found this eccentric; in fact, I found it deeply comforting. Sally Bell’s—or my dream of it, anyway—has somehow become my happy place: a magical, cozy, well-ordered, old-fashioned realm filled with immutable recipes and homemade mayonnaise. Never mind that these aren’t the foods I grew up with; they have somehow become, for me, the definition of comfort. When I’m sad or disoriented, I pull down my book and pore over those pictures. I watch this film again and again, and I cry for reasons I can’t even explain to myself. Read More »

The Carolers

December 20, 2013 | by


Several years ago, my mother announced she was through with Christmas trees. She and my father were tired of buying the thing, lugging it home, and decorating and taking it down. There would be no more tree unless we, their four grown children, put it up ourselves. That year my siblings and I drove to the Quincy Artery Garden Center, ten miles outside Boston, and dragged an eight-footer home. It was like wrangling an alligator; the sharp needles dug into our hands and the peak scraped against the living room ceiling, leaving a long gray trail across the “Cotton Balls” ultra-white paint my father had applied mere months before. That was the last yuletide tree at my parents’ house.

Each year I’ve urged my older brother to revive this tradition; naturally, the job falls to him, since, in the Vietnamese custom, he lives with our parents in their house along with his wife and children. The rest of us have moved out. But his two jobs sometimes don’t afford him time to sleep or eat, let alone embellish a tree. My sister has her own family’s tree to tend to now, and I don’t expect my younger brother, the baby of the family, to take action. I am the biggest tree enthusiast, but my returns home from New York City are always too late. My mother firmly believes in getting maximum use out of any purchase; our pine usually went up right after Thanksgiving and lasted into late February through the Asian Lunar New Year.

As a child I always thought our tree was special. My cousin’s tree, carried up from the basement each year by my uncle, looked creepy to me, the flame-retardant branches screwed into a skinny wooden pole painted green. My family kept fresh spruces that filled our living room with a peppercorn smell. The ornaments, whose individual histories and significances we’d forgotten or simply didn’t know, seemed to have come from a Goodwill bin. Most had been passed along to us by my parents’ housekeeping clients, people they cleaned for in the wealthier neighboring towns. I remember a baked clay piece shaped like a Christmas tree, looped through with green ribbon and painted in cursive across the base: Merry X-mas, Kilborns! There was also a glazed ceramic baseball player in a striped jersey holding a bat over his shoulder that read BENJAMIN; each year, we celebrated the athletic talents of some little-league slugger we’d never met. The glue on some pieces had yellowed and cracked, and various parts had fallen off—the bow on a ceramic wreath, the plastic googly eyes of a square snowman fashioned out of Popsicle sticks. Instead of the usual star, we had an angel whose rubber head was constantly rolling off. To get her onto the tree, you had to stick the top branch up her velvety skirt.

Read More »